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A Close Look at the Zapatistas Presidential Campaign

Last year, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation announced that it would launch an indigenous candidacy alongside the National Indigenous Congress for the 2018 presidential elections in Mexico.

Óscar Fernández

February 28, 2017
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The EZLN candidacy and the Mexican “left”’s position

Last December, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) issued a communiqué directed to “the peoples of the world, the free media and the National and International [adherents of the] Sixth Lacandona Jungle Declaration.” In this document, the EZLN communicated the resolutions of the 5th National Indigenous Congress (CNI), which met from October 9 to 14 in the Indigenous Center for Integral Training – University of Earth (CIDECI-UNITIERRA) in Chiapas.

The communiqué highlights the resistance of the native peoples of Mexico against the dispossession of land and repression for over 500 years. It denounces the sharpening of the capitalist offensive, explaining how the most cruel expressions of this offensive can be seen in the wave of femicides and forced disappearances that have shaken the country over the last years. This impunity is aggravated by constant attacks against critical journalism and independent media.

In a list of 27 points, the EZLN recognizes the different struggles occurring in many parts of Mexico as a consequence of the decomposition of a capitalist regime that militarizes states like Guerrero and Michoacán (where popular discontent led to armed groups like the Community Polices headed by Nestora Salgado), and persecutes and harrasses social activists, keeping them locked in jail for political motives and having yet to answer for the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa normalistas. The points also emphasizes resistance to mega-projects that continue to devastate the environment and areas of cultural and religious importance for indigenous peoples.

One example is the Otomí-Ñätho, Hui hú and Matlazinca people of the states of Mexico and Michoacán, who have faced plunder by private companies in complicity with the government, which does nothing about the many illegal actions taken in the construction of the Mexico City-Toluca highway that cuts through a sacred Otomí forest.

The EZLN’s declaration also emphasizes the struggles against big mining companies (that favor open-air mining), the development of so-called “ecological parks” and eco-tourist travel destinations, real estate speculation, and fracking, which, besides being based on the exploitation of the working class and the plunder of natural resources, also hurt the environment and damage communal territories. As a consequence of this state of affairs, the EZLN proposed organizing consultation meetings “in each of our communities to dismantle from below the power that is imposed on us from above and offers us nothing but death, violence, dispossession, and destruction.”

Given all of the above, we declare ourselves in permanent assembly as we carry out this consultation, in each of our geographies, territories, and paths, on the accord of the Fifth CNI to name an Indigenous Governing Council whose will would be manifest by an indigenous woman, a CNI delegate, as an independent candidate to the presidency of the country under the name of the National Indigenous Congress and the Zapatista Army for National Liberation in the electoral process of 2018. (1)

Stressing their intent to organize people rather than seek power, the EZLN called to continue the consultations and to create an official CNI webpage. Within the constraints of the undemocratic “Alternation” (2) regime, the possibility of running independent candidacies opened discussions within the worker and left organizations about taking advantage of the gaps that exist in the restrictive electoral laws, with many on the Mexican left and center-left expressing opinions on the matter.

For example, journalists like Jaime Aviles put on a tinfoil hat and argued the EZLN was participating in a “political soap opera” with former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, while others in the broader spectrum of the Mexican center-left offered an alternative view. In the following days, declarations made by López Obrador and his followers (intellectuals such as John Ackerman) buzzed through social media:
We once again see a scenario similar to the one in 2006, with many strategies set to divide the left and weaken the historical candidacy of [López Obrador].

This time, they won’t get away with it. I fully support the struggle against dispossession and the destruction of culture, the country and the environment that the resisting peoples—especially the indigenous peoples—of this country have taken upon themselves. The Zapatistas in particular have built an inspiring ideal that can open consciousness and motivates to push for transformative action from below and from the left. They have also achieved important successes locally in the autonomous municipalities of Chiapas. They are not rivals of MORENA; quite the opposite.

However, in recent years the EZLN command has made mistakes time and time again in their sectarian strategy by creating a significant and destructive division between movements that has prevented them from advancing politically. I salute that the EZLN has finally gotten over its “electoral boycott” phase and now sees an opportunity in the elections in spite of the frauds and manipulations that exist. This is precisely what MORENA has argued for years. However, the EZLN’s position to reject their brothers and sisters of MORENA and to instead support the fraudulent, corrupt and privatizing figures of “independent candidacies” for 2018 is a big mistake that will set the way for Margarita Zavala’s (3) victory(4).

This obfuscation with the EZLN’s declaration has a political reason: MORENA’s leadership believes (following a theorization of “political parties-social movements” relations) that left organizations and movements that oppose the government must politically subordinate themselves to their (MORENA’s) program and presidential candidacy. They aspire to claim for themselves the exclusiveness of being Peña Nieto’s opposition.

In Oaxaca’s 2016 elections, López Obrador managed to accomplish this goal by making an alliance with the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers (CNTE), which refused to run independent candidates of teachers who struggled against the education reform and instead supported MORENA’s candidate in the election (and still lost to the PRI).

Andrés Manuel López Obrador accuses the EZLN of “falling into the government’s hands and doing them a favor,” yet he was the one who declared in a speech given in Acapulco: We say, despite the great damage they have caused the people and the nation, we bear them no ill will, and we assure them, before their possible election defeat in 2018, that there will be no reprisals or persecution of anyone. We respect those who hold the maxim ‘we don’t forgive, and we don’t forget,’ but we do not agree with it. We should say: ‘we don’t forget but we will forgive.’ If we set aside hatred and opt for forgiveness, we can walk with the emblem of honesty towards a better society. We declare this anticipated amnesty because what is needed is justice, not vengeance. We do not hate anyone. We simply want to achieve the economic, political, social, but above all, moral rebirth of Mexico. It is a question of beginning a new stage in the public life of the country with a president who is not beholden to any interest group.

Forgiving the ones responsible for the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa normalistas? The ones who continually hand over resources thanks to the energy reform? Forgiving those who carry out the labor reform and the militarization? López Obrador was the one who opposed revoking the education reform because it would mean that the government would falter.

Moreover, on several occasions López Obrador approved of former PRI, PAN and PRD militants entering MORENA and even made them candidates, causing small splits of militants (mainly disenchanted youth) at the local level and calling on the capitalists to appear as a “responsible opposition,” a trustworthy alternative capable of managing their business. In the latest mobilizations against the rise of gasoline prices, his strategy was to call for “civil and peaceful resistance” (i.e. waiting for the 2018 elections to “take the PRI out of Los Pinos” via voting, preventing the movement from spreading and radicalising), which is powerless in the face of a struggle that involves breaking economic, political, military and diplomatic policies imposed by the US government.

The man who calls himself and his party “Mexico’s hope” appears to be the first opponent of the EZLN’s proposition of running an indigenous woman as a presidential candidate in the 2018 election. Clearly, they are against the democratic right of the oppressed to participate in elections and build an alternative to the capitalist parties. The reaction to the CNI/EZLN’s declaration in the usual “left” newspapers reflects the real character and political orientation of “left” politicians and intellectuals who regard certain struggles as acceptable and others as a nuisance. It would appear that suddenly the indigenous people are no longer considered (like in the 90s) “the driving force of this country,” the “guardians of our pre-hispanic roots,” and a “fine example of worthy rage;” rather, they now have “ulterior motives,” a “contradictory discourse,” and are “playing into the PRI and Salinas de Gortari’s hands” for daring to claim a place in big politics.

A democratic right of the oppressed

While a broad spectrum of organizations and figures on the left (aside from the ones already mentioned) that once supported the Sixth Lacandona Jungle Declaration looked favorably on the EZLN/CNI’s proposal for a presidential campaign, they defined it as an “anti-capitalist” campaign even before knowing the CNI’s consultation results and the candidacy’s political and programmatic propositions.

As a result of the political crisis faced by the Mexican regime, all of its political parties (from PAN to MORENA) are now preparing for the 2018 election, which is still a year and a half away. This is further proof of the Peña Nieto administration’s erosion, as well as of the fact that the institutions of “democratic alternation” (PAN, PRI and PRD as its main political parties and others such as the National Human Rights Commission and the National Electoral Institute) are ready to channel popular and worker discontent with this regime into the next election.

This is why it is crucially important to focus all discussions about which political alternative to build for the upcoming presidential elections on the task of mobilizing workers and popular urban and rural sectors in order to strike a big blow at the government and its plans, which will only grow harsher now that Donald Trump is president of the US. It is imperative to develop an independent perspective against the capitalists’ power and their parties. As we have explained in other articles, the Mexican regime is extremely undemocratic.

Workers and left organizations are practically barred from participating in elections; because independent candidacies require enormous amounts of time and resources, the successful registration of such candidacies is a major accomplishment, as we experienced first hand with the approval of the 5th Slate with Sergio Moissen and Sulem Estrada as candidates.

We in the Socialist Workers’ Movement (MTS), as a national political group with legal registration, believe that participating in bourgeois elections is a fundamental democratic right of all left and worker organizations. This is why we previously supported the Political Organization of Workers (OPT, a party pushed by the National Electricians Union) when it was seeking legal registration and tried to run its own candidates in the elections. Relying on our perspective on this matter, we managed to surpass countless obstacles and run, for the first time in decades, an independent anti-capitalist and socialist candidate in the Mexico City Constituent Assembly elections with the intention of giving the demands of women, workers and the youth a voice.

At our Second Congress, which took place November 19 to 21, we resolved to propose a unified campaign to demand the right of all left and worker organizations to become a political party and participate in elections if they wish to do so, and to eliminate the legal obstacles that prevent left organizations from being able to register. This is because we oppose the fact that only the regime’s parties, the parties that serve the interests of the capitalists (i.e. receive large sums of money from big companies and drug cartels), can participate in elections.

We call upon all left organizations, on the trade unions that claim to be democratic and opposed to the government, as well as on all indigenous and peasant organizations (such as the EZLN and the CNI) to join this campaign and to support this fundamental democratic right. We must defend the right of all left, peasant, worker and indigenous people to run independent candidates in the upcoming presidential elections, and of course support the EZLN/CNI’s proposal for an independent candidacy, as well as other initiatives presented by others such as the OPT or us.

A candidacy should give voice to worker and popular struggles

Over the last few years, Mexico has seen important worker struggles that proved that a great social force exists in the tens of millions of waged workers who move society’s gears. Therefore, we believe that a truly independent candidacy for the 2018 elections should give voice to the teachers’ struggle against the education reform that shook the country in 2013 and again in 2016 when teachers went on strike for four months in several states. It should also give voice to the struggle of the maquila workers who went on strike in Ciudad Juárez against exploitation and for the right to unionize independently of the CTM, the same struggle that tried to run independent Antonia “Toñita” Hinojos for mayor of Ciudad Juárez. A real alternative against the bosses’ parties should also give voice to the miners’ struggles and the struggles of workers in other sectors that start to awaken, such as the San Quintín farmworkers.

In this sense, the candidacy of a working-class woman (for example) with a working-class program against the impending crisis and against a political regime that systematically defends capitalist interests could be a symbol that expresses the struggles of these last few years, uniting worker, peasant and popular organizations (as well as the socialist left) behind her.

A working-class candidacy should make the most dire demands of this country: against forced disappearance, militarization, and femicide, as well as for revoking the government’s “structural reforms.” It should also propose to lead the working class in its struggle against the capitalist parties to end their regime and the imperialist penetration they allow, and it should propose that the class that produces most of the social wealth and keeps the Mexican economy running—the same class that has grown with the implementation of the NAFTA—is at the front of a worker-peasant-indigenous alliance.

It is imperative then that indigenous people and poor peasants join with the movements in the cities, mainly the labor movement, which has to deal at the same time with their union bureaucracies to overcome the division created within their ranks, as was the case in 1994 when these bureaucrats kept the Zapatistas isolated and did not call for solidarity actions in big cities like Mexico City.

This candidacy should also join with the youth that has been mobilizing for years like in the #YoSoy132 movement of 2012 and the Ayotzinapa movement of 2014. This is a way to overcome the isolation and militarization the Mexican State has used as a means to keep the Zapatista communities and the struggles against dispossession at bay.

We in the MTS believe that a list of demands that respond to the needs of the Mexican peasantry, native peoples, and the agricultural laborers whose numbers have increased under NAFTA is needed. This implies struggling for the expropriation of the big agribusiness companies that exploit and oppress millions throughout the countryside, and against conditions that the San Quintín farm laborers have rebelled against.

It requires raising the demand for a real agrarian reform by retaking Emiliano Zapata’s slogan—“the land belongs to those who work it with their hands”—, for full rights of autonomy for the indigenous people, for policies against the dispossession of communal lands and natural resources, which is now carried out with the full complicity between the state and the multinational companies, against militarization in the countryside, and against the harassment of the EZLN/CNI’s base and sympathisers, for the release of all political prisoners. These demands can forge a great and powerful unity of workers, peasants, and indigenous peoples behind a real and full intervention through a truly independent candidacy.

Worker and peasant organizations, as well as the EZLN/CNI itself should once again make these demands in their program in order to fight back against the capitalist regime and its government of the bosses, and at the same time fight back against the imperialist offensive on the country, which is the direct cause of the oppression that millions suffer both in the cities and the countryside. For this to happen, it is centrally important to develop an internationalist perspective and build unity among all workers beyond borders. In the US, many migrants who work in the agricultural industry are indigenous laborers. This sector, along with the youth that took to the streets to protest against Trump and against police brutality with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the workers who rallied behind the #FightFor15 movement are the “natural allies” of the Mexican working class and other popular sectors.

Fight against the capitalists’ power!

This opens up a discussion, since it presents the problem of how to end capitalist exploitation and oppression. The EZLN’s leadership’s first declaration spoke mainly of denouncing the privatization of natural resources and the dispossession of land while at the same time speaking of “bad governments” and “their” businessmen. Similar to previous statements, the EZLN intends to “construct a new nation by and for everyone, to strengthen power below and on the anticapitalist left, to make those who are responsible for all of the pain of the peoples of this multi-colored Mexico pay.” However, the Zapatista leadership also said many times—and even recently in a communiqué where they clarify that they “do not change their position”—that their strategy is not set on ending the capitalists’ power nor fighting for a government of the oppressed.

A truly anti-capitalist perspective that presents a candidate for 2018 (and its subsequent program that will be broadcast before the majority of workers through the country) must propose a government of workers, peasants, and indigenous people. It must constitute an alternative power that breaks with imperialist domination, expropriates capitalists and landowners, multinationals and agribusiness companies. Without this, there is no way of thoroughly resolving the most dire demands of the majority of Mexicans. Such a government could (for example) give cheap credits and technological resources to most poor peasants by expropriating banks and key industries. Measures like these could stop dispossession and guarantee the right to autonomy and land that the current regime systematically denies the indigenous people.

The EZLN, on the other hand, has decided in the past to uphold an “exodus to an alternative society” while coexisting with the capitalist power instead of fighting to end it, and instead made way for propositions like those it formulated in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle regarding “fighting for a new constitution.” These demands (in the context of a strategy that does not fight for the power of the oppressed) can only lead to a democratization (or reform) of the same regime they repudiate.

The debate for an independent candidate as the EZLN suggests for the upcoming 2018 elections requires a deep strategic discussion. What we are debating is how to struggle for the interests of the majority of working people and how to offer a real alternative (both in the electoral arena and also in the streets and the class struggle) against the capitalist parties. For the socialists of the MTS, this implies a revolutionary perspective that includes in its program the struggle against this regime and the capitalists’ power, against imperialist domination and for a government of workers, peasants, and the oppressed.

1. EZLN declaration.
2. We characterize this regime as the “alternation regime” to distinguish it from the old PRI-dominated regime of the 20th Century. We give it that name because there is a “democratic alternation”, meaning that the current political parties alternate in power to give it a democratic façade, so presidents may belong to any given party (mainly PRI and PAN, but we do not discard any possibility that the PRD or MORENA may win an election), and yet the government is still capitalist.
3. Wife of former president Felipe Calderón and possible presidential candidate for the PAN.
4. John Ackerman’s declaration was taken from his FB page.

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Óscar Fernández

Óscar is a member of the Socialist Workers' Movement (MTS) in Mexico and a graduate of political science at the Universidad Iberoamericana. He is a Left Voice correspondant in Mexico City and a member of the editorial staff of our sister site La Izquierda Diario México as well as the magazine Ideas de Izquierda México.

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